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‘Active’ Management Wrong Answer Trying to Stop Big Wildfires

With the Taylor and Klondike fires in southern Oregon growing, there are continuous comments, including from Congressman Walden and our Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, that if we only did “active” forest management these kinds of blazes could be reduced in size or even precluded.

The science does not support such assertions. Rather climate/weather drives all large fires, not fuels. Of course, one needs some fuels for an ignition, but what happens after ignition depends on the prevailing weather conditions. If you have drought, high temperatures, low humidity and in particular, wind, you have the recipe for large and unstoppable blazes — at least until the weather changes.

For instance, a great deal of research supports the notion that fuel treatments are largely ineffective under extreme weather conditions. Here are some research findings.

A 2005 paper concluded that “fuel treatments…cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.”

A paper written by fire scientists at the Missoula Fire Lab opined “Extreme environmental conditions…overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects…This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning…Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

These findings were verified by another more recent review study that looked at 1,500 fires and fire severity reported: “We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”

Another study conducted in the California Klamath region found that the most fire-suppressed forests in this area (areas that had not burned since at least 1920) burned at significantly lower severity levels.”

They went on to conclude. “The hypothesis that fire severity is greater where previous fire has been long absent was refuted by our study…The amount of high-severity fire in long-unburned closed forests was the lowest of any proportion of the landscape and differed from that in the landscape as a whole.”

A 2018 study found that actively managed forests experienced greater fire severity than forests with less management. In particular, concluded that Intensively managed private forestlands tended to burn with greater severity than older state and federal forests.

Another study of forests east of the Cascades that included the Deschutes National Forest found: “In general, rate of spread and flame length was positively correlated with the proportion of area logged (hereafter, area logged) for the sample watersheds.”

The authors concluded, “All harvest techniques were associated with increased rate of spread and flame length.”

There are numerous ecological costs associated with logging that are seldom considered or only given lip service. These include spread of weeds, sedimentation into streams, soil compaction, disruption of nutrient flows, loss of wildlife habitat, loss of carbon storage, and disturbance of sensitive wildlife.

A reduction in the flammability in the immediate area of the home is more reliable and cost-effective than trying to fire-proof the forest through thinning operations.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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